Mix Interview: Cowboy Jack Clement

May 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Peter Cooper



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Anyone who would criticize Nashville for safeness or homogeneity has never spent any time around Jack Clement's Cowboy Arms & Recording Spa studio at his Belmont Boulevard home. The Cowboy (who hates horses, by the way) is a legend whose influence has spread over a half-century of American music. He was present at Sun Records, putting the tacks in Jerry Lee Lewis' piano and recording some of the early classics of rock 'n' roll. He wrote songs recorded by a bevy of music heroes. He discovered Charley Pride and Don Williams, and he produced what many believe to be the greatest album of Nashville's “Outlaw” movement: Waylon Jennings' Dreamin' My Dreams.

He has helmed sessions for Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, U2, Roy Orbison and hundreds of others. And he has been a mentor to a younger generation of producers and engineers that includes Allen Reynolds, Garth Fundis, Dave Ferguson and Jim Rooney. As illustrated by the recent documentary DVD, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement's Home Movies, there are no more than two degrees of separation between the Cowboy and Cash, Jones, John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Townes Van Zandt, Mac Wiseman and any number of other luminaries of American rock, country, folk, bluegrass and Americana music.

Clement with Johnny Cash: What were they singing?

Clement with Johnny Cash: What were they singing?

That he's done all this while having more fun than anyone in town is no mystery to those who have heard him proclaim, “We're in the fun business. If we're not having fun, we're not doing our job.” Recently, Clement sat in his office — amidst priceless Martin and Gibson guitars, a photo that Cash took of the Cowboy at a pool, dozens of little battery-powered trinkets that make flatulent noises and stacks of CDs — and talked about some highlights from his unique and colorful life in music.

What was your first recording production?
The first thing I produced was a record with Billy Lee Riley, back in Memphis.

What made you think you could produce a Billy Lee Riley record?
Well, I thought he was really good. I'd been practicing on a Magnacorder, which was considered professional before Ampex came out. And I went with Billy Lee down to where they had a little room at WNPS, which was the Top 40 station in Memphis. We were there three or four hours and cut two sides the first time. One was a country song. I took it to a distributor there, a guy at Music Sales, and we were going to press it up. He was the one who told me we should get Sam Phillips to master it. He liked the rock 'n' roll side, but he thought we should put one more rock 'n' roll thing on the other side. So we went back and did one more side, and that's what I took to Sam to have it mastered.

At the time, I was working in the hardware department at a building supply place, and I hated it. But I was off every Wednesday. I dropped the song off to Sam one Wednesday and went back the next Wednesday to pick it up. Sam was sitting up in the front office. Nobody else was there. He said, “Come back to the control room. I want to talk to you. That's the first rock 'n' roll anybody's brought me around here.” He offered to put it on Sun and pay us a penny a record. He said, “What do you do?” I said I had been going to Memphis State but that now I was working at the building supply place. I said, “I don't like it very much.” He said, “Maybe you ought to come to work for me.” I said, “Maybe I should.” And I did — exactly two weeks later.

Was it an easy transition for you to begin working the board at Sun?
It wasn't hard. At Sun, we only had six inputs. An old radio board. Rotary pots. No EQ. No echo sends or anything. If you wanted to have echo on something, you had to have two mics, and it took up two of the slots and you'd run one through a separate tape recorder. I hadn't been there very long before I talked him into getting a mic splitter where we could have a side thing where you could put echo on five mics. But it was a very basic system. He didn't have an echo chamber — just slapback, running at 7½ ips or 15. I would always run it at 15. At 7½, it was too much delay. One of the first people he let me work with was Roy Orbison.

How close is what we hear on those records to what you'd hear in the room while the recordings went down?
Not close. I wasn't thinking about getting a reality; I was trying to get a sound. I wasn't trying to get it like it sounded in the room; I was trying to get it better. Sam came in one day and did some tape editing, and I thought that was really cute. He didn't bother with a crayon or anything to mark. He'd just stick them scissors down there and snip it. He showed me how to do it. After that, I did a lot of splicing. And it was mono. If we wanted to overdub, we'd have to go mono to mono. I'd have three tape machines going: one for the echo, one for the original and one for the new material.

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